The latest National Military Strategy of the U.S. lays the strategic groundwork for a military option to deal with perceived security threats from major powers such as Russia.

Commander Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, from left, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and outgoing commander Lt. Gen. Mark Milley salute during a change of command ceremony at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. Photo: AP

 For a different take, read: "How the US military plans to neutralize Russia" 

During his July 9 hearings before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee regarding his confirmation to become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., identified Russia as the greatest national security challenge to the United States, ahead of China, North Korea and the Islamic State

"If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I'd have to point to Russia," Dunford explained, citing Russia’s nuclear weapons potential, which explains why the country “not only has the capability to do things that are inconsistent with our national interests – they're in the process of doing so." Nonetheless, Dunford added that, "It's important that we attempt to maintain a military-to-military relationship to mitigate the risk of miscalculation and begin to turn the trend in the other direction in terms of trust.” 

Last week, the Pentagon issued the latest iteration of the National Military Strategy (NMS) of the United States, which establishes U.S. military objectives and explains how the Pentagon will achieve them. 

For the first time since the Cold War, the 2015 NMS says that certain foreign countries potentially threaten U.S. security more than non-state actors like violent extremist organizations (VEOs). “The probability of U.S. involvement in interstate war with a major power is assessed to be low but growing,” the document said. “Should one occur, however, the consequences would be immense.” 

The report recognizes that Russia contributes to regional and international security in some ways, but complains that Moscow “has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and it is willing to use force to achieve its goals.” As a result, its “military actions are undermining regional security directly and through proxy forces… [and] these actions violate agreements that Russia has signed” as well as international norms. 

Russian analysts and officials were quick to voice displeasure with the new NMS, saying that the document was “confrontational” and that it would hamper bilateral relations between the two countries. Influential analyst Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of the United States and Canada, said that the new NMS shows that the Pentagon is “nominating us as the enemy." 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov criticized the document for impeding cooperation between Russia and the United States on common security issues such as counter-terrorism. He regretted that “the security concept is a medium-term and long-term document” that could have an enduringly negative impact and that the strategy’s “wording is indicative of a confrontational mood, devoid of any impartiality towards our country.”

When asked what Moscow’s new security strategy would say about the United States in response, Peskov said that, "All threats to Russia’s national security are taken into account and countermeasures are worked out and adopted.”

But there is not really anything unexpected in the latest strategy, which reflects current U.S. military policies more than it shapes future ones. The revised U.S. National Security Strategy released this February refers to Russian “aggression” and related terms almost a dozen times. That document states that, “Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – as well as its belligerent stance toward other neighboring countries – endangers international norms that have largely been taken for granted since the end of the Cold War.” It insists that, "We will deter Russian aggression, remain alert to its strategic capabilities, and help our allies and partners resist Russian coercion over the long term, if necessary.” The new NMS simply discusses how the United States will do that, partly to deter Russian actions that could worsen regional security. 

The text highlights certain advantages the United States has over Russia or any other potential adversary: “The United States is the world’s strongest nation, enjoying unique advantages in technology, energy, alliances and partnerships, and demographics.” For example, the Pentagon has more “global agility” – the ability to rapidly combine and disaggregate forces anywhere in the world – than any other military.

Although there has been a diffusion of military relevant technologies and a decrease in the demographic weight of the United States in the world, the United States remains unique in the richness of its friendships and alliances, a great power asset that Russia and other countries lack.

In the words of the NMS, “Most states today –  led by the United States, its allies, and partners – support the established institutions and processes dedicated to preventing conflict, respecting sovereignty, and furthering human rights.” The Pentagon will accordingly conduct training, exercises, and security cooperation activities to strengthen existing U.S. alliances, expand new partnerships, and maintain a robust global presence.

However, the text discusses other threats besides Russia, including from China, Iran, and North Korea. And Russian officials have echoed some of the worries expressed in the NMS about the proliferation of disruptive military technologies to foreign countries and transnational terrorist groups:

“Of particular concern are the proliferation of ballistic missiles, precision strike technologies, unmanned systems, space and cyber capabilities, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)…  Emerging technologies are impacting the calculus of deterrence and conflict management by increasing uncertainty and compressing decision space. For example, attacks on our communications and sensing systems could occur with little to no warning, impacting our ability to assess, coordinate, communicate, and respond. As a result, future conflicts between states may prove to be unpredictable, costly, and difficult to control.”

 For a different take read RD debates: "New U.S. military strategy on Russia: Strategic shift or rhetoric?" 

And in another passage that could have been spoken by any Russian military strategist: “VEOs are taking advantage of emergent technologies as well, using information tools to propagate destructive ideologies, recruit and incite violence, and amplify the perceived power of their movements. They advertise their actions to strike fear in opponents and generate support for their causes. They use improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide vests, and tailored cyber tools to spread terror while seeking ever more sophisticated capabilities, including WMD.”

Moscow is clearly no longer a global superpower leading a coalition of allied states and Russia lacks a comparable ideological attractiveness to match that of Western liberalism, though for Putin and others, it does have a normative dimension (opposition on moral and cultural grounds to changes taking place in the West, critique of the U.S.-led world order, and so forth). Even the newly improved Russian military lacks the power projection capabilities of the Soviet armed forces.

Yet, Russia is not a medium-range rogue state like Iran and North Korea that can be isolated: its leaders are inclined to unconstructive bellicose rhetoric, and its violations of international norms and rules could encourage China, North Korea, and other states to do the same. 

It is possible that unexpected events, like the earlier revival of the Afghan Taliban and recent advent of the Islamic State, or the continued military power of China, will alter U.S. policy toward Russia. Nonetheless, the current NMS is revealing for the changes one sees in the Obama administration’s military policies between 2011 and 2015, such as the growing perception of a Russian threat.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.